Thanks to a recent $200 million investment, Canva, the online design firm, is now valued at $40 billion. That makes Canva one of the world's most valuable female-founded and female-led startups.

I first met Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins in 2019 during one of her visits to Silicon Valley. We talked about what she learned after getting rejected by more than 100 investors. 

Perkins came up with the idea in 2007 while attending a university in Perth, Australia. She had a part-time job teaching students to use desktop-design software, programs that were hard to learn and expensive to buy. She had a crazy big idea: to build an online tool that would empower anyone to create great designs regardless of their experience.

Canva's mission seems like a worthy goal today, but it was met with extreme skepticism by venture capitalists, who rejected Canva's pitch at first. In fact, it took Perkins three years to land her first investment. 

In hindsight, Perkins realizes that the early pitch decks and business plan, while thorough, failed to explain why Canva was a good idea.

For example, the business plan read: "Our platform will seamlessly integrate many previously separate industries and leverage isolated online communities to deliver a powerful, unified publishing system."

What was missing? Melanie's personal story.

Explain why it matters before how it works

Perkins realized that she was diving into a technical solution before articulating an emotional problem. And the problem was best told through storytelling, not PowerPoint.

Perkins refined the pitch. Before introducing the solution, she talked about the frustration her students felt as they learned programs that required an entire semester to just learn where buttons were located. Perkins thought there had to be a way to make the design "ridiculously simple."

Perkins told me that once she shared her story with investors, it was a "transformative moment" for Canva.  

"A lot of people can relate to going into something like Photoshop and being completely overwhelmed," she said. "It's important to tell the story, because if your audience doesn't understand the problem, they won't understand the solution."

Getting people to care about the solution requires that they care about the problem. Entrepreneurs are often so enamored of their solution, they neglect to clearly explain the problem their solution is built to solve.

The one question that matters most

On the first day of journalism school at Northwestern, I learned a technique that I still use today to coach speakers preparing for pitches and presentations. Before you begin writing, answer the one question that's on the minds of every one of your readers: Why should I care?

In class, I learned that this is a bad way to start a news article: "The city council will vote on an important initiative at tonight's meeting." Although the sentence might be factually accurate and grammatically correct, my journalism instructors would ask, "Why should I care?"

Here's a better sentence: "Homeowners might see their property taxes rise by $200 a year if the city council approves an initiative at tonight's meeting." If you're a homeowner, you're going to care now. 

I use the same technique with entrepreneurs launching or pitching new things. I bombard them with different versions of the same question until they come up with a concise answer:

Why should I care?

So what?

What does it mean to me?

How will it make my life better?

The specs of your product, service, or company do not answer the question. Getting your audience to care means getting them to feel something they don't want to feel.

When Perkins shared her story, it reminded investors of the frustration they felt when using software that required months or years to master. Only then was the stage set for Perkins and her co-founder (now husband), Cliff Obrecht, to demonstrate their solution, which allowed users to start creating basic designs in just two minutes.

Today 60 million customers across 190 countries use Canva. Yes, Perkins is changing the way the world designs. But first she had to change the way she pitched her idea. Transform your own pitch by answering the one question your audience wants to know.